Can we just skip the first seventeen verses of Matthew? The real story of Jesus starts when Joseph struggles with Mary’s news that she’s expecting a baby that isn’t his. At Christmastime, we want to read about dreams and angels and a baby’s birth, not a long list of “begats.”
Actually, no. Biblical authors always write with purpose. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the second coming of Jesus by contemplating his first coming, let’s consider what Matthew is teaching us through the orderly genealogy.
Including Jesus’s ancestry proves he was born specifically into the family of David. By tracing a direct line from David to Jeconiah to Joseph, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus was a legitimate son of David, qualified to become the future king of Israel.
The names Matthew includes are also important to understanding Jesus. Readers can go back to the Old Testament to learn more about each ancestor mentioned. Careful readers will notice that among forty-two generations in Matthew’s list, five included the mother along with the father. We are meant to note those breaks in his pattern and explore why their stories might be significant.
“Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar . . .” (Matthew 1:3)
How do you preach a family-friendly sermon about an abandoned daughter-in-law (Tamar) who seduced her father-in-law (Judah) and was declared righteous for doing it? It’s difficult, but knowing the tradition of Levirate Law helps: Judah was morally bound to provide a husband for Tamar after his two oldest sons died, but he refused. Tamar later pursued the justice owed to her by tricking (a very willing) Judah into sleeping with her. Though ready to condemn her apparent immorality, when Judah realized what had happened he admitted, “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26, NIV). She birthed twin sons, one of whom became a forefather to David and eventually Jesus. The woman often labeled “prostitute” was actually pursuing righteousness—and God blessed Israel through her.
“Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab . . .” (Matthew 1:5)
The Canaanite prostitute had heard about the nation of Israel, and their mighty God, long before they prepared to overrun her city of Jericho (Joshua 2). When she realized Israelite spies were in her inn, she hid them from her own authorities and proclaimed her allegiance to Yahweh, “for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11). Turning her back on her own people and choosing God took guts. Rahab went from the ultimate outsider—an immoral foreigner—to becoming a leading insider, accepted as a faithful member of Judah. She eventually married their leader and became a noteworthy link in the Messianic line. Her courage and faith demonstrate for all of us that God restores the repentant and welcomes all who call on his name.
“Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth” (Matthew 1:5)
Another foreigner grafted into Jesus’s heritage, Ruth came to faith through grief. A Moabite woman, she married an Israelite man who died within ten years, leaving her childless. But her devotion to her grieving mother-in-law, Naomi, reflected the unconditional loving-kindness of Israel’s God whom she pledged to serve. Ruth is, above all, loyal, just as Yahweh is. She, too, married into the leading family of Judah and became a critical link in the long line to the savior.
“David fathered Solomon by Uriah’s wife . . .” (Matthew 1:6)
By avoiding her first name and instead referencing her by her murdered husband’s name (2 Samuel 11), Matthew highlights Bathsheba as a victim. The reference isn’t so much about her as it is about David’s actions toward her. Having abused his power as king and taken her to his bed, then murdering her husband after a failed attempt to cover up the resulting pregnancy, David is the sinner in this story. In his parable to David (2 Samuel 12:1–14), the prophet Nathan confronts him with his guilt, prompting David’s confession that he indeed had sinned. But God chose to fulfill his covenant with David despite David’s evil behavior, because he is a faithful God. Even our worst sins will not discourage him from his purposes. What about Bathsheba? God raised her up through her son Solomon, who became king after David thanks in part to her advocacy (1 Kings 1:15–35). By God’s grace she survived heartbreak and grew into a woman of strength and influence.
“. . . Mary, who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Messiah.” (Matthew 1:16)
The culmination of Jesus’s genealogy centers on his mother, Mary. The rest of chapter one (vv 18–25) assures readers that Mary’s child comes from God himself, that Jesus is the long-promised Emmanuel that Isaiah predicted (Isaiah 7:14). We can explore Mary’s point of view in Luke 2, where we see her willing submission to God’s challenging but amazing call on her life. She was Jesus’s first disciple, believing in him from the very beginning and faithful to stand with him through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The Advent season gives us time to reflect on the first coming of our savior and the longing that God’s people felt as they waited for him. But he did come! Jesus was born—Emmanuel, “God with us”—as part of an extended family whom God worked through to bless the world. As we anticipate his second coming, Jesus’s family line can teach us much about how he wants us to live: faithful, obedient, loyal, courageous, repentant, forgiving.
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